What an economist can teach us

Jun
22
2014

One of the things I’m noticing about global warming: there’s much contemporary debate about the validity of the science, but not so much on what to do about global warming. We’re stuck, really, in a place of endless ideological squabbling, and we never get to any serious policy discussion.

From what I’ve seen, many people expect that global warming policy will come from climate scientists. The problem with that: there’s no reason to suppose that climate scientists are skilled (or skilled enough) at policy-making and institutional change. It’s not their field. We need a whole different stable of experts–and make no mistake: policy development is a matter for experts. We need the best policy wonks we can find.

I have been thinking for a while now: I want to hear about climate change from economists. An economics prof once taught me: economics is the science of choice. If it’s true that we must vastly reduce CO2 emissions, then policy must somehow mobilize the necessary choices, and on a massive scale. Could an economist help us understand how to bring that about?

Here is Paul Krugman, making an economist’s argument for a carbon tax as the most straightforward and efficient way of reducing carbon emissions. The argument is simple: attach a cost to the emission of CO2, and people will emit less CO2. Tax pollution, and you will get less of it.

From the opinion pages of the New York Times:

The Big Green Test
Conservatives and Climate Change

We are all made of star-stuff

Jun
19
2014

I’ve heard it said that our bodies are mostly sea water; more poetically, that the ocean flows in our veins. Some say that sea water is so similar to blood plasma that it can be used (in a pinch) as a substitute for a blood transfusion.

Here’s another story, also about water. A 100,000-year-old protostar in the constellation Perseus was recently discovered to be emitting highly-energetic polar jets of water: molecules of H20 in fairly massive quantities.

Perhaps this is how comets come to be, and water worlds like ours. There’s speculation that this might be a fairly ordinary thing for stars to do, at a certain point in their life cycle. If this is true, then surely life must be just about everywhere. I think one day, we will know this about the universe: that life is common.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/06/110613-space-science-star-water-bullets-kristensen/

protostars-shoot-water-bullets-jets_36530_990x742

 

A process for the next economy?

Jun
10
2014

I’ve posted briefly about 3D printing. Many people (myself included) regard 3D printing as a disruptive technology whose effects, whatever they may be, are mostly ahead of us.

3D printers use various kinds of 3D feedstock materials: as I understand it, mostly spools of plastic filament. I guess that a lot of that filament is virgin plastic. (Feel free to correct me, if you know more than I do).  I have heard also that feedstock prices are as yet fairly high; it seems almost inevitable that they will come down as the technology starts to spread. Another guess: that 3D printing (already well-established in business) will spread to the village.

I just ran across this interesting news about an obvious next step: recycling thermoplastics (in this case, milk jugs) back into 3D printer filament. Close the cycle!

http://www.3ders.org/articles/20130302-recyclebot-turning-old-milk-jugs-into-3d-printer-feedstock.html

It opens up prospects for institutional change in recycling. If it becomes practical to melt down (at least some) post-consumer plastic stuff and make new stuff out of it, then it becomes easier to close the plastic cycle, so to speak.

Here’s another more current story: about a Vancouver firm that’s recycling ocean plastic to make things with 3D printers.

http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1060550/taking-waste-and-turning-it-into-gold-vancouver-startup-creates-first-3d-printed-objected-made-out-of-recycled-ocean-plastic/

Me, I think that’s too much work. It would be vastly smarter, I think, to keep the plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place. Unfortunately, smarter often seems impossible, just in this moment of history.

Does the commons need patrolling? And if so, how?

 

Augmented mind

Jun
04
2014

I’ve been thinking just lately about Watson, the well-known IBM computer that’s really good at Jeopardy. It’s my understanding, Watson represents a qualitative change in computing: the closest thing yet to machine intelligence.

Here’s some commentary on Watson and what it represents, from a fellow named Adrian Bowles. I like his perspective; he helps us to understand what computers were, and what they’re on the way to becoming.

(more…)

Watson used to fill a good-sized room and put out a lot of heat. Now, IBM has shrunk it down to about the size of  the first IBM PC. Perhaps in the future, Watson will be to our descendants what ENIAC was to us.

Imagine a world of sophisticated digital machines, able to play Jeopardy and (I expect) to speak fluently in many languages, even to understand humour and engage in witty badinage. Oh wait, we’ve already seen that:

Now imagine a world in which (some) humans’ cognitive abilities are augmented by such machines. In the Ironman movies, this is fairly innocuous, because the genius thus elevated is our guy, not theirs. We see the glossy brochure for that future.

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